Monday, December 31, 2012

Going Out with Van Gogh

"I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort- and disappointment and perseverance."       Vincent Van Gogh

About a month ago, Annie and I went to the Becoming Van Gogh show at the Denver Art Museum. I really liked it. So, for 2012, I will go out with a post on what I took away from the experience.* Unfortunately, the show's website doesn't have many pictures of the paintings. So to see what I am talking about, you really should go. Really. 

A caveat- I am not an art critic or art professional (duh). And, some personal biases- since Van Gogh's paintings are are very popular, and therefore somewhat scarce (as in, not every museum has a bunch of 'em), I just wasn't a huge fan. I'd seen Sunflowers and Starry Nights, and heard the insipid Elton John song. Meh. 

In any event, my comments here, what I want to go out with, have to do with creativity. And on that front, I was very impressed. "Becoming Van Gogh" provides (reinforces?) some observations on creativity that I think apply beyond art. 

#1 Even Geniuses Suck. Vincent was only an artist for 10 years (1880-90). I never knew that. And his work sucked through much of this period. OK, maybe it is fairer to say it sucked in the beginning, and was unremarkable during many of these years. He painted "visual sermons"- basically a dark palette, heavy figures, toiling for God's greater glory. If I saw these in an old attic, I would not have picked them up. But for the name, they would not be notable. His notebooks reveal his frustration with his work, and his work reveals nothing of what would come in just a few years. So, just think how it might feel to be Van Gogh, before "Becoming Van Gogh." In 1882, he said "success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures." He said this long before he had any success with his art. So he sucked, but he was optimistic. Perhaps you may have felt that way at some point in your life? One is often optimistic when you start; you suck and you are naive, so you get better as you work, and you don't really know how you compare to others who don't suck. 

#2 It Takes Others. At some point, however, you do start seeing others who don't suck. How you react to them makes a big difference. Do you reject them, or learn from them? When Vincent moved to Paris in 1886, he took up with another young artist, Toulouse-Lautrec. The two friends were assigned the seats reserved for "weaker students" at drawing classes (this also seems to be a common theme among some creative people, sitting in the back row, being put in the "slow" section, but I digress).  While in Paris, he began to borrow from what he saw others doing: Japanese art and the neo-impressionists. As the show's curators put it: "brilliantly, he combined these two seemingly incompatible approaches...Van Gogh surprised perhaps even himself as he created something utterly new." Perhaps it is confirmation bias on my part, but this recombinant approach fits so well with studies of how innovation happens. Besides Toulouse-Lautrec, he also befriended Gaugin in 1887. In Van Gogh's words: "For the great doesn't happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together." Imagine, how it might feel, to be hanging out with renegades, those painters in Paris who exhibited their paintings in small restaurants, and rarely sold anything. Before they became Van Gogh (or Gaugin, or Monet). 

#3 Breakthroughs Happen Unpredictably. What was so amazing to me about this show was how one gets to see, in effect, the fossil record of an explosion of creativity ... learn, practice, struggle, suck... Explode! This was not linear. In one year, starting late in 1887... it all changed. His art blossomed and he became the artist he is famous for being. This seems similar to what happens in biology and society as well. In retrospect, we can see patterns, but breakthroughs are difficult to predict. Van Gogh wasn't a child prodigy. He wasn't an award winning artist. He didn't go to the fancy schools. And then he became one of the most famous artists of all time. And it was so short. A year later, he cuts off his ear and by mid 1889 he is in an asylum, dying of a self inflicted gunshot in 1890. He became Van Gogh, and then he was gone.

#4 Is There a Correlation Between Madness and Creativity? It was interesting that the show did not discuss Van Gogh's mental state in any detail. Perhaps because so much has been written on the topic, and it is all speculation. Not so long ago, I wrote about Small Batch Madness, and quoted Aristotle: "no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness." Van Gogh had more than his share of madness, and it appears to correlate with the time of his greatest excellence. It makes me wonder, is creativity found along the path to madness? Is creativity about seeing the world differently than everyone else, but in a lesser degree than those who are "mad"? 

I don't know. So I will leave you with my favorite Vincent quote from the show's entry gallery: "I'll start with small things." Wise words. I wish you the best for 2013!
* if you are one of my newer bleeps, and wondering what the hell Van Gogh has to do with the BOP, please reread the intro to my blog. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Recent reads and some ramblings thereon

Just finishing up Little Bets by Peter Sims.  An easy to read, up to date summary of thinking on the creative side of innovation, and one that would go well with "Where Good Ideas Come From," "Medici Effect" and "Steal Like an Artist". It will be the last book I read in 2012. Thanks, Peter!

Other favorites from recent months:
-Startup Communities by Brad Feld- maybe it is pride in the Colorado roots of this book, but I think this should be required reading for entrepreneurs (as well as any politician or government official who wants to talk about "job creation"). Startups are such an important, but misunderstood part of the economy. Why should entrepreneurs read it? To understand how important the ecosystem/community is, and how important it is for them to give back/pay forward to that community.* For BOPreneurs? While not Brad's focus, I think there are some great foundations laid here. For instance, the work of Village Capital, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Echoing Green and The Hub are encouraging similar approaches to building startup communities, albeit not always with a geographic focus.**

-The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Communities by Stephen Marglin. You know how some books just take your world view and shake it in a way that it doesn't ever get back to the way it was? Well, for me, this was one of them. We will see how it stands my test of time, but for now, it goes up on that top shelf of books, which include Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Friedrich Hayek, Hawken & Lovins(s), Hernando deSoto, William Easterly and Peter Singer (umm, yes, I do live with some internal intellectual tension).*** This book attacks many of the precepts upon which our modern economy is based. Rather than asking how do we make markets work better, he instead asserts the limits of markets. When should humans prioritize markets, and when should we prioritize community? If you are open to the idea that "the foundational assumptions of economics are cultural myths rather than universal truths" I'd encourage you to look at this book. For entrepreneurs, I think that, as with many unpopular perspectives, this book provides a multitude of new ways to solve problems (aka, "opportunities"), and new tools beyond the popular "market based" approaches.****

What does 2013 hold? Well, my next package from Amazon contains: 1) Marjorie Kelly's "Owning our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution"; 2) Michael Shuman's "Local Dollars, Local Sense" and 3) Nassim Nicolas Taleb's "Antifragile- Things That Gain From Disorder." Looks like time for some more "intersectional reading."
*The day after I posted this, Brad posted this 2013 advice for entrepreneurs: "Give Before You Get."
**Note: In my work at Bohemian Foundation, we fund some of these organizations, or organizations affiliated with these organizations.
*** Challenging ideas can be pernicious, burrowing pests at times. Your established view is like an immune system, and can fend off the weak ones in time. But some just grab hold and make you itch for a while. Then they become part of your ideabiome (metaphorically speaking).
****Just to be clear, I am still a fan of market based approaches, in many instances. It is my "go to" bias. But so much of my work is in areas where markets have, at least until now, failed. As my colleague Tom Dean has written, market failure can be a rich vein of entrepreneurial opportunity. And there are many good examples of social entrepreneurs who have used market approaches to solve market failures.  Perhaps an example is illustrative of the quandary: which enterprise will have a bigger impact in bringing clean water to more people who need it- Spring Health (started by my friend Paul Polak) or Water For People (run by my friend Ned Breslin)? This is a hard question, with no easy answers (and it was my students' final exam question this past semester!). Spring Health has a purer, market based approach. Water for People uses markets, but it also uses other community development tools, because it believes that market based approaches will only reach 85% of the people in a community, and their goal is to reach everyone, forever. The untouchables, AIDS orphans and others won't all get water. Spring Health acknowledges the issue by providing water delivery, at a higher cost, to the untouchables. Both are admirable ventures, yet they raise the issue of whether a business model should be based primarily on market forces, or whether other approaches may also be needed to address these challenges. Perhaps it depends on the community's view of whether water a right or a commodity? Because we wouldn't just use markets to provide rights, right?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

When Failure Isn't OK

Part of approaching startups as experiments is that there is the potential for failure.
It's become a meme: fail early, fail often, write a failure resume.
I'm OK with failure, unless it's a failure of imagination or effort.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Charity 2012

Well, for the fourth year in the row, I am going to share our year end charitable donations, as well as some of the reasoning behind them. I know that this is often viewed as "nobody's business"... my reason for sharing is to encourage others to give. Not necessarily to the organizations that I support, but in an intentional and researched way.

Last year, we started a family fund with the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado, so we now use that for the bulk of our donations. All five members of our family are involved in choosing and researching organizations they would like to support, so our donations reflect some common values around what is important, as well as more specific individual interests. 

Before diving in, I would like to highlight several resources that people serious about intentional philanthropy should consider. You are not alone, and if you are want to explore why you should give, or how to do it effectively, there are some good resources.

-The Life You Can Save, both a book and a website from Peter Singer that will challenge you to become an active donor.
-Big Bang Philanthropy- identifying and supporting high impact organizations around the world that are implementing solutions that reduce poverty.
-Givewell. Started by several people who wanted to make sure their donations really made a difference.
-Half the Sky Movement. Nicolas Kristoff & Sheryl WuDunn's site for organizations reducing oppression of women and girls. 
-Charity Navigator. Ranks charities on financial health and accountability. 
-Global Giving. A community of funders working on a number of projects around the world.
-Innovations for Poverty Action. Has started a fund targeting the most effective interventions against poverty.
-Social Impact Exchange. 100 effective non-profits based in USA. 

OK, enough of resource links. Let's cover what our family supported this year. As in past years, we organize our giving into five areas.

1) Environment- because we can't live without it (~20% of our donations in 2012)

-The Nature Conservancy-protecting ecologically important lands and waters worldwide.
-Trust for Public Land- conserving land for public use in USA.
-IdeaWild (C)- small grants with a big impact on biodiversity.
-Trees Water People (C)*- community based sustainable development, focused on reforestation and ecological restoration.*- global grassroots climate activism. 

2) Health- because health is the cornerstone of development; it's hard to work or go to school if you are sick. (~20%)

-Doctors Without Borders- emergency medical aid, in 70 countries. 
-Vision Spring- affordable eyeglasses in Central America and India
-Mothers2Mothers*- reducing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Africa
-Against Malaria Foundation*- efficient distribution of mosquito bed nets.

3) Social/International Development- Admittedly, a catch-all category. But basically for organizations that are working on innovative, primarily private sector approaches. (~15%)

-One Acre Fund- making small farmers in Africa more prosperous.
-iDE (C)- creating income and livelihoods for poor rural households in several countries; small scale irrigation technologies. 
-Nepal Youth Foundation- helping disadvantaged youth in Nepal.
-Women for Women International*- supporting women in post conflict areas. 
-The Mission Continues*- fellowships for returning veterans to use their leadership to make an impact at home.

4) Education- We are fans. Much positive change comes from education. (~12%)

-Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship- entrepreneurship for disadvantaged kids in USA
-Engineers Without Borders (C)- water and energy projects in developing world through partnerships with engineering schools
-Akili Dada- scholarships for talented secondary school girls in Kenya
-Book Trust (C)*- improving literacy and book access for disadvantaged kids in USA

5) Local Community (all are Colorado based)- there are many needs in our own communities. (~33%)

-Food Bank of Larimer County
-KUNC Public Radio
-SAME Cafe- great non-profit restaurant in Denver
-United Way of Larimer County
-Slow Money Soil Trust*- community finance and agriculture; bringing money back down to earth.
-Food Family Farming Foundation- healthy school lunches
-Intercambio*- language and cultural training for immigrants to Colorado
-Growing Gardens Boulder
-Alzheimer's Association of Colorado
-SAINT (Senior Alternatives in Transportation)- helping seniors who can't drive
(C) means Colorado based
* indicates this is our first year supporting this organization. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Diablog 001: Kevin Starr

Hi Bleeps-
So I have had this idea for a while that it might be interesting to start getting other people involved in this blog. First, I have had some great guest posts from folks like Carl and Teju. But I also wanted to try something I called a "diablog"... a mashup of a blog and a dialog. Kevin Starr and I were emailing back and forth about my recent post on Small Batches, and I asked him if he minded if I used it as an MVP of a diablog. One of the many great things about Kevin is his willingness to play guinea pig, so here goes.  I kept editing of the email thread to a minimum... rather than add links to the thread, you can find links to the organizations Kevin mentions here. Let me know what you think... who/what else would you like me to probe or provoke with this format?
Happy holidays, Paul

Kevin sent this slide from a talk he'd given: 

Paul: ... thanks for looking over my blog on small batches/experiments. As I said to someone else, it's smart to keep an organization "quick and crafty." And you know, I think you are a madass. I liked your slide showing stages... idea -> r&d -> proof -> replication -> scale. And I liked your line under scaling companies that "all good organizations continue to have a lab to help them innovate and evolve"... what is an example you've been impressed by? One Acre's experimental farm popped into mind...

Kevin:   Yeah, One Acre is a perfect example.  They are continually honing their model, and trying out new things.  They know that you need to separate your work at scale from your experiments until you have proven stuff to integrate into operations and model.  One Acre is in fact planning to expand their r&d as they grow, which i think is a really good way to go. 

All labs should be "crafty and quick."  That doesn't mean that organizations should stay small, just that they should continually improve their model and operations via that part of the organization designed to "fail fast" and obsessively iterate.

Paul: One of the challenges I see, and what I liked  about the New Belgium article, is that these labs are separate, yet part of, an organization. In a lot of the work on innovation inside existing organizations, there is a tension between getting the main business done, and doing the r&d need to position for the future, offer new services, etc. Another tension is bringing experiments into the mainstream when they look promising.  Do you have any stories from Mulago organizations on bringing things into the mainstream, or of scaling them back into the main business? What should organizations think about when an experiment works?

Kevin: Well, they shouldn't do experiments unless they are ready to do something with the result. Nuru, One Acre, Proximity Designs, Kickstart, Kiva - and I could add a lot of other names, but these are all Mulago organizations that have ongoing trials of new ideas, technologies, and products.  They are eager to make use of the products of their experiments - that's why they did them in the first place.  When I was doing medicine, there was a useful saying that more should have adhered to: "don't do a test unless you know what you're going to do with the result."  The same should be true for field experiments.

Paul: As usual, you have better examples than I. I usually tell the story of the dog that chases the school bus every day. Then one day he catches it and says "now what?"  So, building on your point, one thing that concerns me about a lot of early social ventures is they haven't thought this through, and sometimes their experiments have consequences or risks that fall on the people that can least afford them. In early days of Envirofit, we took great care to compensate taxi drivers for the day that their motorcycle was in the shop for the retrofit, and we were worried about what happened if the system failed. Not just because we wanted it to work, but because that would be a day's lost income for the driver, plus having to push the vehicle home, etc. In medicine, there is a lot of early pre-clincal work and testing before one tests safety in humans... it doesn't seem that the same thought goes into our sector. The best work i've seen on this is the BOP Protocol that Stu Hart, and his crew at Cornell, put together. I'm a little worried about the lean startup, go do experiments approach in the social sector... 

Kevin:  Well, it’s hard to do market trials with monkeys…..really, though, few of the “experiments” we’re talking about have much potential for harm – things like different marketing approaches, trying out new crop varieties on test plots, better recruiting strategies.  You’re not trying out new therapies on unwitting patients or having a bunch of farmers bet their farms on a crop with an unproven market.  You’ve got a firewall between your experiments and the interventions that you take out into the world.   If and when people are part of your experiments, they should know what they are getting into and be enthusiastic participants in a mutual adventure.